The Brain Rules ~ But Which Part?

The fact that the brain, or centralized neural complexes, even exists in multicellular higher organisms is indicative of it's over-arching governing function.  Sure, we have feedback loops in our bodies that seem to have little if any mediation by centrally produced signals, but ultimately our organs, including our fat tissue, ultimately relay information to our brains.  Our brains then send out signals back to the organ, and to other organs.  Renowned endocrinologist Julius Bauer -- heralded originally by Gary Taubes in GCBC, and now in a recent blog post -- said as much.  

I've been reading a lot of truly nasty commentary about the web ever since Stephan began rolling out the food reward series.  Apparently a lot of people have hurt feelings and think that Stephan is now yet just another young skinny male just looking to blame fat chicks for their obesity, by -- gasp! -- discussing how leptin alters appetite and food intake in the brain.  Ya know, I do share the sentiment regarding the seeming dominance of the field of all nature of obesity experts tending to be lean males, trying to figure it all out in a population dominated more by females.  But that impacts my views on advice given and such ... I cannot let it cloud my judgment as regards what the science actually says.  This is the crux of this matter of obesity research and such.  Anyone can fashion a hypothesis that makes sense to them.  But if it is not consistent with the actual results observed in carefully controlled experiments, it's just wrong!  Conversely, I don't care if Stephan were actually Homer Simpson if the science he's conveying to his audience is sound.   And yet, sadly, I think most obese are beyond "repair" in terms of ever experiencing that nirvana of subconscious homeostasis of a lean body weight.  That doesn't mean it's not attainable, just that it will take some conscious effort.  Before I discuss that a bit, I just can't help but highlight a comment Taubes made recently on his blog:  

GT says:November 11, 2011 at 7:24 amThis is a point I’ve always wanted to make to Kurt Harris and some of the young paleo types as well — understanding obesity and weight regulation without having a weight problem yourself is like trying to understand parenting without having children. You might think you get it, but when the children arrive, you will learn differently.

Amazingly, only Kurt and myself called him on this.  Meanwhile these same folks have no problem absorbing the wisdom of thin guys like Mark Sisson and Peter/Hyperlipid.   Taubes' arrogance is just astounding.  But I think GT just gave me some additional credibility here, thanks buddy!  I have been there/done that, therefore I understand that which none of these guys can ever relate to.

Therein lies the problem with the "brain rules" part.  Most obese have not just tilted at the bounds of homeostasis, they have blown right on by them.  And the epidemic simply CANNOT be explained by an increase in underlying genetic causes.  This is unfortunate for the genetically obese, nothing I can say or do will alter their reality.  But the obesity epidemic is one of overeating and/or underactivity -- as Taubes acknowledged in 2007 at Berkley, there's an environmental agent or agents at work here.  Where I think feelings get hurt is that folks equate this with being seen as a "greedy glutton" and "lazy sloth" which is not always the case.  But neither, based on studies, is this notion of peckish folks lingering on treadmills as they become fatter and fatter.  Perhaps a serenity prayer is in order with regards to the perceptions you can and cannot control.

I think this "brain rules" part disconnects for so many of us because we are disconnected from the subconscious ruling.    Humans eat when they're not hungry all the time.  Humans eat past the point of feeling full all the time too.  I could list a thousand things humans do that override our innate hormonal signalling.  Some moreso than others.  I don't get the legions of "carboholics" who cannot get the "foodaholic" aspect of food reward.  I also don't get those who think that consciously cutting your carbohydrates is really any different than consciously cutting your fat or just total calories, or consciously upping your activity or whatever else.  

So I see a slight disconnect here.  Stephan's presentation of food reward is part of the indisputable fact that the brain ultimately rules energy homeostasis -- subconsciously -- in animals with normal genetic and anatomical makeup.  FRH seeks to explain how our food environment disrupts this homeostasis.  If you really think about it, Stephan is shifting the blame -- if any is to be had -- to the food (and by inference to the manufacturers of said food who engineer its effects), and away from the obese person.   But we humans, can consciously override that portion of our brains.  The affluent -- who had access to the food and means to have skilled people prepare it for them -- have historically tended towards obesity.  

So what to make of all of this?  I don't know really.  I just had to vent a little today about the insanity of it all.  I don't know why it is that folks are so wedded to this notion that they are at the behest of their pancreas and insulin receptors and whatnot -- this does not "blame the victim" -- but find offensive that they are at the behest of their hypothalamus instead.  How does that "blame the victim" any more?  The "cures" I see being bantied about -- whether they be low reward food or low carbohydrate food choices both involve deliberate effort in most cases.  Not at all unlike that old tired conventional wisdom of some conscious control over energy content by consciously lowering fat intake or practicing portion control.  

At this point were I to be one of these frustrated obese, I would do everything in my power to find out if there were some underlying genetic problem.  Perhaps demonizing the very researchers who are looking into these sorts of things aren't the best targets for your animosity. 


Unknown said…
Hi, Evelyn! I think you get all these emotional reactions because so many (as in me) feel, or have felt, powerless and not in charge of our own bodies. Obviously, any hint that we're to blame pushes an important button because we look around and see other people who don't have the problem. They aren't necessarily more active, and if they eat less it's because they don't care whether or not they eat and we (as in I) live with obsessive need/desire to eat. It just doesn't seem fair!
M. said…
I thought it was pretty funny that with that statement Taubes chose to abandon all scientific and rationale thought just to pander to middle aged fat women. Maybe he was getting marketing tips from Kruse.
Tonus said…
I think that we tend to seriously underestimate the influence that our subconscious has on our behavior. It's difficult to accept that we're not as in control of our actions and reactions as we believe ourselves to be. So instead of recognizing how our behavior is influenced, we tend to make excuses and all sorts of explanations for why we act and react the way we do.

Such things as confirmation bias are our subconscious at work. Consider how that fits into our attempts at weight control and health improvement, and how it affects our diets and lifestyles. Ever hear someone who fell off of the diet wagon with a large binge rationalize it? Ever do it to yourself? (Heck, is there any of us who hasn't done it at least once or a dozen times?) Ever find yourself lying to yourself when that miracle diet suddenly stopped being so miraculous?

Read the comments sections on many of those blogs and sites around the web, and see if you can spot how many people are waging a war that is more about psychology and mental health than it is about nutrition or physical health.
TCO348 said…
Great post. You hit on a lot of the same things that frustrate me about this whole debate. Most overweight people are eating less than they want to because they're trying to lose weight. As a result they don't think they're eating nearly as much as they are. The opposite is true too. I have a friend who has always wanted to gain weight but he said that no matter how much he ate he couldn't gain. But then when I saw how little he was eating (that felt to him like a tremendous amount) I had to laugh.
Galina L. said…
I think Steven's theory could be applied mostly to some people who are fat victims of "cafeteria food", many of them wouldn't be fat if they were living 100 or even 50 years ago. I think thous who are upset by his theories, don't feel that what his has to say is related to them or explains their situation. Besides , the therm "Food reward" is not clearly defined.
Quarrel said…
I agree the FR definition baffles lots of people, and too many mistake "I love the taste chocolate" and my-brain-gets-signals-when-I-eat-chocolate bits of the definitions. You see this time and again in the comments over at WHS.

Stanton's series on Hunger did a really great job of defining terms I thought:

(see parts 1-7, linked at top of that, but 4 is my favourite :)

He defined his terms clearly, in an accessible way, then used them consistently. I'd definitely point people to it ahead of Stephan's write up initially (for all I got a lot out of Stephan's).

CarbSane said…
Welcome unknown! I've been there done that, and understand this. But I also know that facing certain truths has helped me move beyond that phase.
Muata said…
@Taylor - I think that your comment hit on something that needs to be addressed more -- the mental change that accompanies sustainable weight loss.

In my case, it took me several years to come to grips with the amount of food I used to eat when I was obese; however, when I was obese, I certainly didn't think that I ate that much. Yes, like most obese folks, I was partly deluding myself, but there was a part of me that wasn't. In my mind, I just didn't understand why I couldn't lose weight since I didn't have "that big" of an appetite (or so I thought).

It took my mind a good 3-4 years (of maintaining my losses) to finally catch up with my body. I'm sure there's some nifty fifty cent medical term for this, but it just seems as though we are creatures of habit. The longer we are obese, means the more time we eat a certain amount of food, which eventually becomes a "normal" portion.

The same is true once you've "consistently" maintained your losses for a couple of years. You re-teach your brain how much you can eat to stay at your current size. But, again, I think this takes years of being consistent in maintaining your losses.
What I don't understand is the LCers claim that food reward puts the blame back on "bad lazy fatties" and the CIH does not. There are plenty of people eating carbs who are not packing on the pounds, right?
Oh, and one other thing. Re the epidemic and "underlying genetic causes" I agree that our genes haven't changed in decades, but I find the whole gene expression/epigenetics concept very compelling. The idea that your parents' diets before conception or your mother's diet pre-/post-natal could set one up might explain a lot about why some react to SAD one way, while others react another.

And in the old shampoo commercial ("they told two friends, who told two friends, who told...") this has grown non-linearly ... more parents overweight/obese or with met syn have more kids who wind up overweight etc who have more kids etc.
Galina L. said…
I , actually, clearly feel the difference between the food that prompt me to be more hungry and eat more often (good example is an apple between meals, but not after), and the food I can't stop eating (ice-cream, nuts, especially pine-nuts and unsalted roasted sunflower seeds), so I can eat it more when I do it because I have trouble to stop even when I don't feel hungry. It is not the desire to satisfy hunger, but the desire for the particular texture and the addictive taste. Since I personally never found the problem number 2 is the difficult one to overcame, and I was way too hungry on a mixed diet, and just eat too much because of my huge appetite, I don't think the issue of addictive food is very important one. Real hunger is a very difficult sensation to ignore, you can't switch your attention from it, you may became stress-out or unable to think about anything else but food. Nuts or ice-cream deprivation is super easy to handle. I try to avoid addictive food, but it is more important for me to stay away from the food that makes me really hungry.
I understand that many people just don't realize what is the normal amount of food for them. May be, by the following the food reward diet, they would discover it. For others calories counting may work, for me it was low-carb home-cooked meals without an attempt to recreate LC versions of junk foods.
Sue said…
Beth the epigenetics I find interesting too. Listening to a teleconference about it next week.